Katharine Lee Bates

Wellesleys Katharine Lee Bates (WHS 1874)
and her hymn to America

by Beth Hinchliffe 

     Three hundred and fifty-three children are squeezed together on the shiny gymnasium floor of Bates School, some sitting cross-legged, some popping up and being shushed, others whispering or giggling or tossing occasional half-hearted punches. When the assembly begins with the school song, however, they quickly grow quiet and begin to sing: “Oh beautiful, for spacious skies.” Then mischievous sidelong glances begin as they shout “for AMBER waves of grain,” laughing as they look at their principal, Amber Bock.

     They clearly love the reference, and they love that it is “our song.” When asked afterwards who wrote it, a chorus bellows “Katharine Lee Bates!” When asked why is that important to them? “We’re Bates School!”

     When I was their age, and in their same Bates classrooms, I was also one of the children mesmerized by the fact that our school was named after someone famous who had lived in our own town. We felt special. Our principal, Henry Barone, made sure of that. He would drop in on classes, select a student at random and ask who the school was named for. Then, the harder question, how do you spell that? Even before we were really good at spelling our own names, we knew that “our” Katharine was spelled with two “a”s, and we smugly corrected anyone who thought differently.

     For seven years (kindergarten through the sixth grade) I belonged to Katharine Lee Bates’ family, and my fifth-grade teacher Richard Talbot, a legend himself, was eager that we understand how proud we should be. A man filled to the brim with humor, enthusiasm, and even more energy than his 10-year-old students, one day he rounded us up and took all of us on a field trip. Not to a boring museum, but to Katharine Lee Bates’ home.

     Her own home. I was in awe. I can’t remember how we got there, but I can still remember the power of seeing the actual place she had lived. It was nearby, at 70 Curve Street, but I’d never paid attention to it before. Now it took my breath away. Hopelessly dreamy anyway, I imagined her walking up these very steps, looking out this very window, and standing on this very porch, which she did while holding her pet parrot, in a photo Mr. Talbot showed to us.

     After all, Katharine had been almost exactly my fifth-grade age when she moved to Wellesley with her mother and older sister (her father, a Congregational minister, had died when she was just a month old). They lived with her aunt in a house provided by generous friends, a tiny white cottage at 17 Chapel Place, just behind what is now called the Wellesley Hills Congregational Church.

     Back then, in 1871, it was Grantville not Wellesley Hills, for Wellesley was still West Needham, ten years from becoming its own town, and Grantville was the name of the section we know as Wellesley Hills. For all but two of the next 58 years until her death, our town would be her beloved hometown.

     Every day, the young Katharine walked with her best friend Emily Norcross along an elm tree-shaded, sparsely-populated dirt road called Washington Street all the way from Grantville to the West Needham school, a wooden framed building which is now Fiske House and sits just inside Wellesley College’s main gates.

     After school, they would wander over to the newly-developing campus and play on the scaffolding of the grand College Hall which was just being erected. Then Katharine would return to her room and write. She wrote all the time, poems about anything and everything. When she graduated from West Needham (now Wellesley) High School (she and Emily were the entire class), she gave the address.

     And then Katharine was finally on the inside of that College Hall, as a member (and later president) of the college’s second class, where she was known as “Katie of (the class of) ‘80”. At first impression she looked shy or aloof, somberly dressed with her hair in a severe bun, but lurking behind those soft, almost pudgy features and pince-nez were twinkling eyes and an impish smile all too ready to emerge.

     After graduation and a brief time teaching at Dana Hall, she returned to Wellesley College, which would be the center of her life for more than 50 years. Embraced by the college that she embraced as her own, she became head of the English Department when she was barely 32. Katharine was a serious scholar and writer, publishing dozens of books throughout her lifetime, but also a devoted mentor and delightful friend with a puckish sense of humor.

     One of my great treasures is a book that my parents gave to me many years ago, knowing the special bond I felt with my school’s namesake. It’s an autographed copy of her play “Little Robin Stay-Behind,” and the best part was the insight that the inscription to its original owner gave into her personality: “To Mrs. Hicks, With the friendly gratitude of her troublesome Katharine Lee Bates. Christmas 1923.”

     Katharine loved to travel, and it was on one of her trips that a brief moment became the defining experience of her life. On a clear Saturday afternoon, July 22, 1893, at the age of 33, while visiting Colorado Springs she scaled Pikes Peak with other visitors in a prairie wagon, and was overwhelmed by the grandeur of what lay before her. “The opening lines of the hymn floated into my mind,” she said later, as she wrote down the words in the little notebook she always carried: “For purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain … ”

     Over the next two years, Katharine worked on perfecting her “love song to our country.” In time her neighbor and fellow professor Clarence Grant Hamilton set it to music, and the first public performance of “America the Beautiful” took place in Wellesley, sung by the choirs of her Congregational church and her college.

     It was published in the influential weekly “The Congregationalist” for July 4, 1895, and was immediately adored from “sea to shining sea.” The five-dollar payment from the magazine was the only money she ever received for her poem.

     Somewhat bemused, she sat back over the next few years and watched “A and B,” as she called it, become the country’s favorite song. Eventually set to the music familiar to all today (written by Samuel Augustus Ward), it grew to become a symbol of this country, so much so that at the end of the First World War, on November 11, 1918, when the armistice was signed in in Verdun, France, soldiers still on the battlefields spontaneously started to sing the words.

     Many attempts have been made, including one led by Congresswoman and Wellesley resident Margaret Heckler, to have it become the national anthem. Even Elvis Presley recorded it. In the devastated days after 9/11, the soulful Ray Charles version became the unofficial anthem of patriotism. When Pope John Paul II stepped off his plane to become the first Pope to visit the United States, he kissed the ground and said, “I greet you, ‘America the Beautiful’. Permit me to express my sentiments in the words of your own song: ‘America, America, God shed His grace on thee’.”

     While her poem went off to lead a life of its own, back in Wellesley Katharine yearned for a home of her own. And so in 1907 she bought land on Curve Street, just off Weston Road near the college, and built a house big enough to be home to her, her mother, sister, a devoted college friend, a variety of pets, and an eclectic and constant stream of visitors. It was utterly unique and completely Katharine, a rambling brown-shingled house “nestled among oaks and laurels and outcroppings of ledge,” with window-sill feeding trays for birds, a porch for every bedroom, a whirling weathervane, and a very private third-floor retreat she called “Bohemia.”

     Immediately she unpacked her trunks and filled the house with treasured souvenirs of her journeys: Egyptian antiquities (including a stone wing of Truth from Luxor), Italian embroideries, a lamp from Nazareth, beads from Spain, and dozens of leather-bound books from England which she put in the tall, glass-doored bookcases that had been her father’s, and his father’s before him. Blue Swedish tiles of sailing ships framed the fireplace in the room she named “the Haven.”

     Katharine loved her home, which she immediately christened “The Scarab” after the beetle of the Nile, which she had encountered on her trip to Cairo, and which was also the hieroglyphic sign for “create.” This was her first real home, her last home. For the next 22 years, the Scarab pulsed with Katharine’s passion for life and friends, writing, and the intellect. She was a merry hostess who opened the doors to students, friends, and fellow professors, for a meal, an evening of good talk, a short stay, or a temporary home.

     On March 28, 1929, after having asked to be taken on a final ride through her town and the college campus, Katharine Lee Bates died in her third-floor bedroom. Her longtime friend and fellow Wellesley writer Gamalial Bradford (for whom the high school was named) wrote in her obituary for The Townsman: “Though not born in Wellesley, Miss Bates may be regarded as having always identified herself most deeply and affectionately with the life of our town.”

     These are the facts of her life. But what of the woman?

     Throughout the last half of the 20th century, Henry Brainerd was another of Wellesley’s “most unforgettable characters,” a delightfully eccentric native known for his spiky gray handlebar moustache, his stentorian Town Meeting proclamations, and his whimsical doggerel (contributed for town events). He was also the father of my high school friend, Jessie. With very little prodding, Mr. Brainerd would hold forth on any subject. My favorite was his godmother, Katharine Lee Bates.

     From Mr. Brainerd, I was enchanted to hear that she had brought back water from the River Jordan for his baptism. That she adored chocolate creams, hid them from herself when she tried to diet, and then made a game for him to search the house and discover for her where she’d squirreled them away. Her door was always open for him to come and play, but they didn’t use store-bought games. Katharine would invent new ones just for him, charming and silly, including his favorite, where they became detectives.

     “Welcome to the Scarab!” she would call out to welcome those who visited, and he remembered what a magical world it seemed to a little boy, filled with books, papers, people, exotic treasures, and pets. First there was her collie, Sigurd, who used to walk the Nehoiden Golf Course with her as she made ungainly attempts to learn how to play. Then came Hamlet, another collie who earned his name because he was so afraid of everything that Katharine decided he must have seen a ghost. Finally there was Polonius, a curmudgeonly parrot who shouted at and spooked poor Hamlet, and who insisted that Katharine feed him toast and coffee to start each day.

     Katharine was always a well-known figure in town, not because of her growing fame, but because of her regular route through the “Vil” (as she called downtown Wellesley) to and from the college. Always an amply cushioned woman, she usually dressed in layers of black, and with great dignity rode everywhere on her bicycle named “Lucifer.” (She delighted in naming the great pleasure of her life: although she never drove herself, she had a car she christened “Abraham,” and put a guest book in the back seat.)

     Even as she passed beyond middle-age she still could be spotted on Lucifer, wisps of independent-minded gray hair escaping from her hastily secured bun, her face with its absent-minded sweetness dissolving into smiles as she recognized friends.

     Today, more than 90 years after her death, one of her most thrilling legacies can be found at the Wellesley Historical Society. Hanging in the basement, in their collection of gowns, is a dark brown taffeta dress, surprisingly small, heavy and uncomfortable. A tag notes that it belonged to Katharine Lee Bates, c. 1890.

     When I first saw the dress, I was suddenly once again that fifth-grader touching the door of her house. Here was the lace collar that would have framed the familiar gentle face with the downcast eyes. I could scarcely believe that I was holding in my hands the dress that she had actually worn, and could even have been wearing the day she traveled up Pikes Peak and into history.

     What are her other legacies in Wellesley? She is remembered with fierce pride and devotion at the college of which she was the unofficial laureate, where a dormitory and a professorship are named after her, where murals of “America the Beautiful” fill the walls of Green Hall, and where students now fondly sing “and crown thy good with sisterhood,” a change which would have brought from her an approving chuckle.

     And she is remembered by town officials who in 1954, 25 years after her death, dedicated a new school in her honor. Katharine, who delighted in children but had none, would most likely have rejoiced in calling these children her own. After all, she had been their age when she confided to her best friend Emily Norcross her greatest ambition. “If I could write a poem people would remember after I’m dead,” she said, “I would consider my life had been worth living.” 

(Reprinted from WellesleyWeston Magazine)